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J Anat. 2002 Aug;201(2):159-71.

Regional variations in the cellular matrix of the annulus fibrosus of the intervertebral disc.

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McCaig Centre for Joint Injury and Arthritis Research, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Calgary, AB, Canada.


The three-dimensional architecture of cells in the annulus fibrosus was studied by a systematic, histological examination using antibodies to cytoskeletal components, in conjunction with confocal microscopy. Variations in cell shape, arrangement of cellular processes and cytoskeletal architecture were found both within and between the defined zones of the outer and inner annulus. The morphology of three, novel annulus fibrosus cells is described: extended cordlike cells that form an interconnected network at the periphery of the disc; cells with extensive, sinuous processes in the inner region of the annulus fibrosus; and cells with broad, branching processes specific to the interlamellar septae of the outer annulus. The complex, yet seemingly deliberate arrangement of various cell shapes and their processes suggests multiple functional roles. Regional variations in the organization of the actin and vimentin cytoskeletal networks is reported across all regions of the annulus. Most notable is the continuous, strand arrangement of the actin label at the disc's periphery in contrast to its punctate appearance in all other regions. The gap junction protein connexin 43 was found within cells from all regions of the annulus, including those which did not form physical connections with surrounding cells. These observations of the cellular matrix in the healthy intervertebral disc should contribute to a better understanding of site-specific changes in tissue architecture, biochemistry and mechanical properties during degeneration, injury and healing.

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